The 2010s Miami Heat: Finally an Heir to '80s Lakers/Celtics?
Six days later, I'm still trying to make sense of the Miami Heat's coup, and I still can't really believe it happened: I can't believe LeBron James left to go to another superstar's city, I can't believe all three stars were willing to take less than max money, and I especially can't believe all this happened while all three players are in their primes, in their 20s. I can't believe that, after such an ego-engorging exercise of free agency, these players have chosen to pursue the course which requires ego sublimation.
I think the new Miami paradigm is difficult to grasp because it throws off our reference points for how things are supposed to work. LeBron's career had been following the arc of the early Jordan narrative, and we could evaluate ultimate success or failure based on whether he became a perennial champion. Even after LeBron's oddly detached performance in the Celtics series, when his legacy seemed to be taking a left turn, there was a precedent in the Wilt narrative: was James on the road to a similar career of overwhelming regular-season statistical dominance and strange postseason failures?
Now, James seems to have forfeited his pursuit of all-time top 5 status, and we have something essentially without precedent - the Heat's signings are a reminder that each narrative in sports is new. The main comparable to me is Wilt Chamberlain forcing a trade to the Lakers in the summer of 1968 to join forces with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but those players were 30, 32 and 34 at the time, so it's really not even close. The Heat are poised to dominate with three stars in their primes, and anything less than, I would say, 4 or 5 championships will be viewed as failure.
-- After an initial reaction to how clumsily the soap opera of these transactions transpired, and a feeling of sorrow for the long-suffering fans of Cleveland (something I'll try not to ever forget)... well, I have to say that the fan of the game in me has taken over as I look forward, and I'm thrilled at the potential basketball ahead of us.
The Miami three - especially James and Wade - were key players on one of the most beautiful basketball teams I've ever watched, the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, and with LeBron and D-Wade both being such unselfish players, I think we have the potential to see some of the most beautiful - and best - basketball of all time by the middle of this decade.
I expect it to take a year or two to all come together (though I am shocked at how quickly the Miami roster is filling out with quality players like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem following the superstars' lead and accepting lesser money), but I think that we will eventually have a team which can make a run at joining the 1986 Celtics, 1987 Lakers, and the 1996 Bulls - the three best single-season teams ever, in my opinion - as the greatest of all time.
If there's one thing that's been missing from the NBA over the last decade or so, it's that we haven't had a team truly take a run at all-time greatness - we're coming up on 15 seasons since the '96 Bulls. I'm not yet ready to call the Heat the favorites for 2010-11 (I think I still favor the Lakers because of superior size), but in future seasons, when they can use salary-cap exceptions to add more depth of quality bigs next to Chris Bosh, I do think we'll get a 70-win team at some point. I believe that the combo of two of the top three players in the league, at the very least, plus another top 10-15 guy will just be too overwhelming for the league in time, once they get used to playing together and finish filling out the roster.
Lots of times I hear complaints that the NBA just isn't as good as it was back in the glory days of the '80s, when the Celtics and Lakers fielded teams full of Hall of Famers (while, in my opinion, conveniently forgetting how much worse the quality in the middle and bottom of the league was).
That's the thing: in the 2010s Heat, we finally have a team loaded enough to be a potential heir to the '80s Lakers and Celtics. Yes, they still need to make it happen on the court, but the potential is there. I do also expect it's likely that we'll see another mega-team or two emerge to counter Miami as their dominance becomes evident in a couple years, though SuperTeam2 may develop in the East, which would mitigate the Lakers-Celtics effect a little bit, by not being a Finals matchup.
Getting beyond the supreme awkwardness of "The Decision", that's a pretty damn cool thing for an NBA fan to dream about, isn't it?
-- I will also say that my dream for the upcoming couple seasons, while the guys are still young, is for Miami to run, run, run. I hope the Heat play like the 1990-91 Bulls, known as "The Dobermans" for how Jordan, Pippen and Grant attacked teams with aggressive, trapping defenses - one of my favorite teams ever to watch. C'mon, Erik Spoelstra, give us a chance to see LeBron and D-Wade out in the open court.
-- What can stop a budding Miami dynasty in the 2010s? I think there are two main things to watch:
1. New collective bargaining agreement. If the new CBA clamps down on the availability of exceptions like the mid-level, Miami may have a tough time replenishing its roster as guys like Haslem and Miller (who are both 30 already) age.
Sam Amick of AOL Fanhouse also noted that, if the NBA makes major changes, to a hard salary cap with no grandfathering, the Heat could be forced to shed Bosh next summer.
2. Dwyane Wade's health. D-Wade is not only three years older (28) than his All-Star teammates, but he also has the longer injury history. While Wade's stayed healthy for the past two seasons, he played just 51 games in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, and broke down in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005. With a team so top-heavy, a major injury to the Big 3 could be devastating. Wade's fearless style of attacking has long been considered an injury risk, not to mention the fact that he's had so much responsibility to carry the Heat on his back. One would think that the help of the SuperFriends trio should take significant strain off his body.
-- LeBron James certainly transformed from a hero to a villain in the blink of an eye - or, at least, in an hour of made-for-TV spectacle. Is there a way for him to restore his image - is there a way for LeBron to restore himself back in the running for one of the top-five players of all-time?
In terms of the all-time debate, I think it's going to be tough for LeBron to shake the perception that he took the easy way out. Charles Barkley captured the conventional wisdom:
- The notion that you can be born in your hometown and rise from the ashes, that would mean ... First of all, I think for these guys as reporters, if somebody said to you guys, I want to bring a championship to Cleveland. Even 15 years from now, if he hadn't won a championship, everybody would respect him more. Saying, you know that guy wanted to win a hometown championship.
I talked to a bunch of players, and they all say, "If he would have took the challenge of staying in Cleveland..." Now, if he wins one in Miami, it's "Okay, congratulations."
So, how can LeBron change this perception, especially when D-Wade will presumably always have one more ring than him? Well, LBJ's obviously going to have to pile up some stratospheric accomplishments. I would say that he needs to lead Miami to a 72+-win season at some point, and at least 6 titles, or maybe at least a royal flush of 5 straight. I also think that averaging a 20-10-10 triple double or two - something which I believe is within his range - would capture the imagination of NBA fans and create a debate about whether he's comparable to - or better than - Magic Johnson.
Also in LeBron's favor is the age difference between he and Wade. As Wade becomes 33 and 34, LeBron could re-emerge as a true no. 1 carrying his team, rather than as a sidekick to another no. 1, and give extra weight to his number of championships, much as Kobe Bryant has done by adding 2 championships as a no. 1 to his 3 earlier championships as a no. 2.
-- Of course, all this is wildly premature. LeBron still needs to get to championship no. 1, after all, especially after his disappointing performance vs. Boston in May. We still have to play the games, and again, I wouldn't be surprised if it takes a year or two to coalesce in Miami.
Still, one thing that I'm interested to watch will be how the Miami SuperFriends affect NBA fan interest. I would imagine that this combo will be fantastic for capturing the imagination of fans - especially casual fans - in the first year or two, but if the Heat become an untouchable dynasty, with seasons feeling like mere formalities to Heat coronations, what will happen? I tend to think that fans are always captivated by greatness more than anything else, but, in the immortal words of Heat legend Timmy Hardaway: "We gunna see."
-- Kevin Durant's quiet handling of his contract extension has been widely praised as a sharp contrast to the free-agent circus of "The Decision" and beyond. Here's something to consider: if LeBron and the Heat take on the role of villains... and assuming that the Lakers remain a polarizing giant... does that mean that the Oklahoma City Thunder could take on the role of the league's ultimate white-hat good guys? It would be quite a quick 180 in image for a franchise so recently vilified for the circumstances of its move to OKC.
-- I don't really care that much about media scoops in this day and age, but I don't think Stephen A. Smith got enough credit for calling the James-Wade-Bosh move to Miami far earlier than others. As evidence emerges that the Big 3 made their decision earlier rather than later, Smith looks better and better. As much as I've never cared for Smith's on-air persona, I have to give credit where it's due.
Meanwhile, I'd like to tip The Painted Area's cap to John Hollinger, who wrote on August 6, 2009 that:
- The biggest winner of all, however, might be Miami.... They have virtually no money on the books beyond this season and could add one max contract and another fairly expensive star, all while keeping Dwyane Wade.
-- Speaking of outstanding NBA writers, Brian Windhorst has already written the best story looking Inside "The Decision". I'm hoping Windhorst writes the definitive book detailing the long, winding road from Beijing (or wherever) to Miami for James, Wade and Bosh. It's a fascinating story about modern sports in so many ways, but unfortunately, I wonder if it's untenable for a Cleveland-based writer such as Windhorst.
-- If I may make another request to the esteemed Mr. Windhorst, I still really want to know exactly what happened in Game 5 of the Celtics-Cavs series. It was possibly the strangest basketball game I've ever seen, and certainly out of character compared to what I've seen from LeBron James' career. That said, there's no doubt James was strangely aloof and seemingly disinterested in Game 5, and it has colored my view of him. What the hell happened?
-- "The Decision" was bad, OK. But I've been trying to figure out why it didn't bother me that much. I think it's because, perhaps sadly, I'm inured to reality-TV culture. I find Survivor, The Bachelor, Jersey Shors, The Hills and on and on and on far more offensive. I guess I find no-talents desperate for celebrity less offensive than narcissistic talent. It's a race to the gallows, I know.
It's the same reason the Barry Bonds reality show didn't bother me that much. Yes, it was ridiculous, but I was at least curious about Bonds as a character. I view this all as entertainment, and find LeBron/Bonds/etc to be interesting characters. The average no-talent reality-show participant just engenders pure disgust from me.
-- Last, but not least: I'm sorry, Cleveland. You deserve better, really. As much as I might gush about and revel in the basketball played in Miami in years ahead, I'll try to never forget.